Authors: Paul M. Levitt
Paul M. Levitt
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Copyright © 2014 by Paul M. Levitt
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Levitt, Paul M.
The denouncer : a novel / Paul M. Levitt.
ISBN 978-1-58979-967-7 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-58979-968-4 (electronic) 1. Soviet Union—Social conditions—1917–1945—Fiction. I. Title.
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ohn Donne, in 1624, wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Every one of us is indebted: to other people, to country, to language, to faith, and even to fashions. We are all, like the double helix, intertwined.
Similarly, no book is written free of influence and help. The writer, consciously or not, draws on books and articles, past and present. Friends lend a hand. Foundations and institutions fund a project. Family keeps one sober, literally and figuratively. A publisher, like mine, stands by the work and offers whatever assistance it can. Not to thank those from whom I have drawn sustenance would be to suggest that I live in a vacuum. I therefore wish to express my indebtedness to the many who have made this book possible.
For their moral support, I owe a world of hugs to my wife, Nancy, and children, Scot, Daniel, and Andrea; my sister, Sandra; and my colleagues Elissa Guralnick, Victoria Tuttle, Paul Murphy, Don Eron, Tim Lyons, and William Kuskin.
For his ongoing encouragement, I cannot measure the worth of Frank Delaney.
For her scholarly help, I ow
e more than I can express to Susan Weissman, professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College of California.
For her illuminating scholarship on denunciation, without which I could not have written this book, I am grateful to Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick, formerly from the University of Chicago and currently at the University of Sydney, Australia.
For their financial support, I appreciate enormously the Kayden Research Grant Committee at the University of Colorado, and Chancellor Philip DiStefano.
For their wondrous generosity to my scholarship students, I thank Martin and Gloria Trotsky.
For their expertise in bringing this book to press and promoting it, I am immensely grateful to Jehanne Schweitzer, senior production editor; Gene Margaritondo, copyeditor and plot doctor; Kalen Landow, marketing; Sam Caggiula, public relations; Karie Simpson, assistant editor; A. J. Kazlouski, proofreader; and Clare Cox, translation rights.
A special appreciation is reserved for Marcus Brauchli, friend and newspaperman extraordinaire.
And as always, I applaud Rick Rinehart for having the courage to publish literary fiction about a dark side of Russian history, especially given that some publishers shied away from my former novel,
, with the explanation that few American readers would know the name “Stalin” or have any idea what transpired during the Soviet period.
hen the military light truck arrived at the elderly couple’s farm, deep mud greeted the sergeant as he slid from the cab and left his intoxicated companion behind. The Parskys nearly collapsed on learning that they had been denounced as “exploiters and parasites.”
“Who . . . who would accuse us?” sobbed Mrs. Parsky.
“Five minutes. Then into the truck. If I was you, I’d take a few valuables to trade and a heavy coat for the winter.”
Overhearing the sergeant, the Parskys’
son fled to his childhood hideaway, the haystack. A thousand times as a child, Sasha had burrowed into the stack to escape monsters, giants, witches, evil spirits, and ghouls. He knew the permeable part of the hay and how to lose himself in it. Sasha noted that the policeman spoke Russian badly, using the crude colloquialisms of the whorehouse and the inn. Like so many young men who had left their subsistence farms for work in the OGPU (secret police) and other defense forces, his language and behavior betokened “I am a faithful son of the state, a dependable Bolshevik.” These social misfits, often stationed in towns as public officials, had been waiting years to settle scores with landowners and the literate. Among the resentful, literacy functioned as a divining rod to identify enemies of the people, though, ironically, the benighted wanted their children to read and write.
Yes, the Bolsheviks knew how to exploit differences. With one decree they condemned landowners and the educated classes, and with another they promised drunkards, thieves, and wife beaters that the government would school their children.
Sasha watched as the policeman herded his parents toward the lorry. Mikhail Parsky, still energetic at sixty-five, vaulted onto the truck bed. But Sasha’s mother, nursing a bad knee, fell as she reached for her husband’s outstretched hand. Sasha would have remained hidden had the man not lifted her from the ground by the beautiful braid that hung down her back, causing her to cry out in pain. Leaving his place of concealment, Sasha bolted into the barn, grabbed a sickle, and fell upon the man, decapitating him with one slash of the blade. The other policeman could not believe what he briefly glimpsed in the side-view mirror: a headless torso. Climbing down from his seat to investigate, he stared in shock at his comrade and then at the Parskys. His primal scream reached back across the centuries, across the steppes, to Kazan and the khanate, to those innocents pleading for mercy before the conquering Mongol hordes. He unholstered his pistol. But Sasha, who had stolen around the other side of the truck, came up behind him. This time the blade failed to pass through the neck. The man’s head dangled like a slack puppet. The Parskys stared wordlessly. He who had never hurt another person, who had never caused his parents a moment’s trouble from his birth in 1915 to this moment in 1935, had become a monster.
Was this the same Sasha who had frequently brought from the field injured birds and nursed them back to health? Other children used slingshots to wound or kill wildlife. He hated hunting. With his gentle hands he often cradled sick animals, and when a creature died he was inconsolable. His kindness extended to beggars on the road, whom he brought to the kitchen door and implored his mother to feed. His principles and honesty were not of the straitened Soviet type: unbending, blind to the individual, and devoid of allowance for the dissenter and the weak. His behavior exemplified his belief that the seats of justice should be filled with good people but not so absolute in justice as to forget what human frailty is. Imbued with this idea, Sasha had saved Pavel Zimmerman, a young man of fourteen, subjected to continual abuse at the hands of his drunken father, who beat him for any infraction of his rules. One night, the father threatened to shoot his son and brandished his Winchester 10 rifle that he had brought back from the war with Germany. The son tried to wrestle the weapon from his father. During the skirmish it discharged, wounding the father in the leg. Pavel fled.
While police and peasants searched the countryside, the boy took refuge in the Parsky barn, where Sasha found him asleep in the hay and promised his protection. Although questioned by the gendarmerie, Sasha said he knew nothing of the boy’s whereabouts. In a few days the searchers disbanded, declaring that the boy was no longer in the oblast. In reply to Sasha’s questions, Pavel said that he would be safe if he could reach his grandmother, but she lived 120 kilometers distant. Sasha prevailed upon his family to pay for the boy’s transportation and saw him off on the train.
But who really was this Sasha? For that matter, who was any Russian, so many of whom were part European and part Asian? And what of the Russian characteristics that writers and rulers so often invoked? In Sasha, the Parskys saw some of the same traits: pride and emotion, longing for the unknown, unpredictability, spontaneity, lack of moderation, and, like the land, a spacious soul. His generosity was unrivaled, to family and friends, and also to strangers. He preferred working with others to working alone, a trait handed down from Old Rus and the Orthodox Church. When he had money, he lent it; if the borrower couldn’t repay, he ignored the debt. The Russian proverb applied to him: “Give, spend, and God will send.” He genuinely believed in the common good, sharing and exchanging with others, and he addressed soul mates with the most intimate word in the Russian vocabulary:
, kinship. Most Russians, the Parskys believed, harbored in them “Yemelya,” the great idler, a fairy-tale hero who never wishes to leave his favorite place—his bed or seat above a warm stove. Sasha, though contemplative, was not lazy. Long on thought and academically suspicious of extreme feelings, he was typically slow to act, enduring grievances with resigned patience. Like other Russians, he knew what his country had lived through: centuries of the Tatar yoke, a world war, revolution, a civil war, repression, and now Stalin. But once he saw the OGPU agent grab his mother’s braid, he was like an icy current driven by a compulsive course. His acute sense of justice, which transcended any law or Russian habit, raced from his head to his hand, leaving him no choice other than to kill the two policemen who embodied a government that wished to confiscate his parents’ farm without any regard for the age or health of the owners. Sasha had, unbeknownst to himself, been gripped by madness.
Without a word of regret or the sign of the cross, Sasha said to his parents, “You must leave at once for uncle’s farm in Perm. Given the incompetence of Bolshevik bookkeeping, they’ll never trace you. Return to the house and pack what you hold dear. We’ll drive to the Kamyshlov Station. From there you can take a train to Yekaterinburg and then Perm. If asked, I will say that you have gone to Sochi.”
His mute parents retreated into the house, where they filled two suitcases with clothing and stowed their most treasured belongings in three flour sacks, all of which Sasha put in the back of the military truck under a tarpaulin. In a field behind the barn, he buried the two men and the sickle, but not before he removed the personal contents from their pockets and from the truck. Setting out for the station by a circuitous route to avoid any villagers, Sasha questioned his parents’ silence. What could they say? His father wondered if ten years in a labor camp wouldn’t have been preferable to seeing his son commit murder. And his mother cried softly, unable to believe the scene that she replayed in her mind. Had she actually given suck to a boy who had beheaded two men as easily as he might have harvested wheat?
At the station, Sasha bought train tickets. Although fear and disbelief had rendered them speechless, his parents paused briefly on the platform to embrace him with an energy that bespoke their terror. Sasha started to leave and then paused. Behind him, a train exuded great clouds of steam that briefly enveloped him. His parents, who later spoke of this moment, treated it as an omen signifying a cloud of unknowing.
As the steam faded, the first part of him to reappear was his face, then his hands, and finally his body. As he moved toward his parents, intending to embrace them a second time, they backed away, frightened by this son who had several hours before figuratively vanished into a fallen world to serve as an avenging, satanic angel, and who now emerged from a white mist.
Mr. Parsky, more worldly than his wife, summoned enough sense to say, “If they come for you, denounce us. We’ll understand.”
“Just speak of me kindly,” Sasha said, “in the years to come.”
His parents obliged their son, whom they never saw again.
Outside of town, Sasha wiped the steering wheel, abandoned the truck, and hailed a ride on a hay cart to the next station. In the icy drizzle, the lantern hanging from the cart cast pools of light in the puddles, which seemed like underground portals beckoning Sasha to enter. He took a train west to Tula, the site of his college studies in history. Several days later, two secret policemen, Rockoff and Zoditch, arrived at his dormitory to question him about the “slaughter.” The police had learned from the Parskys’ neighbors that Sasha had traveled to his village for Easter. He was questioned interminably. On what date had he returned to the school? Who had seen him return? Witnesses? Where were his parents? The local stationmasters swore that they had not taken train tickets from him, and, at the Yekaterinburg terminal, the ticket sellers explained that they hardly had time to stare at travelers’ faces.
“Did you drive the truck to a distant city?”
“We can examine the truck for fingerprints, so you would be well advised to tell the truth. Our records show you have a license to drive. Correct?”
The questions seemed endless. Yes, he had visited his home, but left a day before the “event in question” and was as shocked as the secret police. His parents had written him from Sochi, but omitted a return address. They had said they’d keep in touch. Did he have the letter? The police wished to look at the postmark. No, he had thrown it away. Had he any suspicion that his parents harbored ill feelings toward the government, that they would desert their home, that they would reside in Sochi? None. He was as amazed as the agents.
“Surely,” he asked, “you don’t think my parents murdered two policemen and then disappeared?”
“Come with us,” said Zoditch, and the two policemen led him to a car.
Rockoff took the wheel and drove to a distant police station of unpainted cinder blocks and a roof sprouting antennae. The building resembled a large insect, surrounded by a gray, featureless landscape shrouded in the melancholy of madness. In the distance lay a soccer field. Trash littered the vacancy between station and field, and a raw wind blew out of the east, tossing papers in the air like a whimsical juggler. Rockoff entered the station, behind which stood several police cars protected from vandals by a chain-link fence. Zoditch and Sasha remained outside. The former lit a cigarette. His stained fingers resembled orange tentacles. He suggested they walk, leading Sasha past stalks and field grass crushed from the morning frosts. Water squished underfoot. Zoditch stopped to watch two soccer players, one defending the goal and the other trying to pass him.
“I played midfield good,” said Zoditch, “but my father he beat me for running off from farmwork to kick a ball. That was his words.”
A small, cunning fellow with a narrow forehead and yellow eyes jaundiced from drink, he had grown a goatee, in the manner of Lenin, but his beard was spotty, bare in places. He ran a hand over his pocked face, exhibited decaying teeth, and spat through a gap between them. His other hand he kept running over his wrinkled uniform as if he wished to correct its disorder. Unlike his unkempt appearance, the policeman spoke in straight lines, briskly and to the point, even if his remarks were frequently ungrammatical.
“You are under a cloud,” he said, “and to come out . . .”
“You must denounce your parents.”
Sasha and Zoditch approached the goal as the kicker lined up a shot.
Mr. Parsky’s advice echoed in Sasha’s head. After pausing a moment, he said, “Here and now, Comrade Zoditch, in your presence, I denounce them.”
The goalie blocked the shot. Zoditch mocked without mirth. “Not good enough. In
, you denounce them by the words ‘traitors’ and ‘murderers.’ You swear them enemies of the people, and you say those hiding them, unless they turn them in, love the Tsar.”
Sasha fingered the netting of the goal, which reminded him of fishing with his father in a favorite river and Mr. Parsky’s hook net, which he had bought from a
. His father, adept with a rod and reel, put his son in charge of netting the fish. Without facing Zoditch, Sasha asked, “Do I write the denunciation or do you?”
Strident laughter greeted his question. “We have people who these kinds of things they like to do.”
For a few minutes, the kicker had a good run. He beat the goalie four times in a row. Then they exchanged places. Zoditch and Sasha walked toward the station over the decaying bronze leaves.
“First, I am a Pioneer,” said Zoditch, referring to a Communist children’s group. “Second, I am a Komosol,” he said, citing the acronym for the Communist Union of Youth. “And you?”
Sasha Parsky had never shown any interest in politics, but rather in books. As a youngster, he had tried to imitate Pushkin, writing verse and short stories, but quickly decided that he had no talent for literature and turned to history, which captivated him even more than fiction. His decision became final once he had read Lord Byron’s lines from
: “’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.” Those words, he had decided, were written for him, because he loved nothing more than he loved the different, the strange, the eerie, the outré.
“I entered poetry contests but never won,” Sasha mused.
Zoditch spat between his teeth. “Poetry,” he scoffed, “that’s a long time ago what the court wrote—and not in Russian.”
He was referring, of course, to the successors of Peter the Great, the Tsar who admired the West
and built Saint Petersburg, a city looking toward Europe. Those who served the subsequent Tsars, and the numbers were thousands, spoke and wrote in French. Russian was considered a doggerel language. Not until Pushkin wrote poetry in the idiom of the people, and eschewed stilted Church Slavonic, did Russian literature come alive. The most avid readers of poetry were women, a fact that did not escape Zoditch’s contempt.